How Do Pilots Steer Passenger Jets When On The Ground?

In the absence of a tug, have you ever wondered how pilots navigate their aircraft while on the ground at an airport? While the aircraft’s rudder, slats, and flaps will alter an aircraft’s direction in the air, these won’t be very effective when moving at a speed of 20 miles per hour. Let’s find out how aircraft are steered when they’re not in the air.

An aircraft’s flaps and rudder won’t be effective on the ground. Photo: Getty Images

The short answer

Simply put, with wheels on the ground, an aircraft is steered with what is known as a “tiller.” This device is found in the cockpit and is equivalent to the steering wheel of a car but is designed to be operated with one hand.

The tiller is almost always located on the outside edges/sides of the cockpit- just to the left of the left side-stick or yoke and to the right of the right side-stick or yoke.

While it’s agreed that this is called the tiller, what it looks like varies depending on the aircraft. The tillers on some commercial airliners are a curved hook shape, which are more “handle-bar-like.” Others are a half-moon shape, and others are pie-shaped. Of course, no matter what the shape, the function is the same- and rotating the tiller will steer the aircraft’s front set of wheels left and right.

This will enable the aircraft to make very sharp turns and thus navigate the network of taxiways at any airport prior to take-off and after landing.

a350 cockpit
The location of the tiller in an Airbus A350 cockpit. Photo: Joao Carlos Medau via Wikimedia Commons 

The other answer

Aaron Johnson notes that the tiller is only present for large commercial aircraft. It can be a different story for smaller planes.

Speaking with the MIT School of Engineering, Johnson says the following:

In some smaller aircraft, the pilot turns the nose wheel through the rudder pedals. But other smaller aircraft don’t have the hardware required to turn their wheels. So they either stay fixed straight or are free-swiveling, like the ones you see on shopping carts.”

In the case of these smaller aircraft, pilots have to use a technique known as differential braking, which according to MIT, works by applying the brakes to the wheel on one side of the plane. This causes it to pivot around the wheel and gives the pilot control over which way the aircraft is headed.

Additionally, if the airplane has at least two engines, one on each side, the pilot can use “differential throttling.” This technique adds thrust to the engine on the side opposite the stopped wheel, allowing the airplane to turn even more easily.

737 cockpit
The cockpit of a Boeing 737. Notice how the tiller shape differs from that of an A350’s. Photo: Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia Commons 

Of course, using the tiller at high speed (such as during takeoff) is likely to result in the nose wheel snapping off, with more disastrous consequences following that. When speeding down the runway, any adjustments to aircraft direction (likely to compensate for wind) will be made by adjusting the aircraft’s rudder.

Did you know about the tiller? Let us know in the comments.